If you’re a recent graduate from an art degree, you’re probably feeling the pressure. I bet you feel like you feel the impending doom looming over you; it probably feels like you’re about to be thrown to the sharks. Or perhaps ACTUALLY being thrown to the sharks seems like a better fate than the encroaching abyss of life after graduation. Well, I’m here to tell you that things do get better. Think of me as your fairy godmother (like the one in Shrek, but actually nice), as I’m here to tell you some things that I wish I was told upon graduating from a creative degree in the midst of a pandemic.
Don’t let your grade define you
In my opinion, universities have failed to adapt to the challenges set in 2020/21. They have shown a distinct lack of care and compassion towards both their staff and students who are cracking under the immense pressure to produce work in a time when it feels as if the world is collapsing. Before I get into a massive rant about how institutions can do better, I’m going to tell you that you should be SO proud of yourself for making it this far in your education, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic.
I sobbed when I received my grade, I was so gutted; I could barely move from my bed for days because I thought I was a failure. But let me tell you, that grade has never prevented me from achieving what I have wanted to achieve. I also don’t even think anyone really cares what grade you get once you graduate so don’t tear yourself down for not fitting into a rigid marking-scheme for creativity (which should never be the case anyways). Release your sadness, but never let that grade hold you back from getting to where you want to be in life. You’ll also have learnt way more at art school than a final grade will ever do the justice of translating!
Take a break
Even if you don’t think so right now, you’ll probably be burnt out. You’ve potentially been through a horribly gruelling year. Please don’t think you need to keep up the momentum right after you graduate. There will be open calls galore, organisations tempting you left, right and centre from the minute you graduate to kickstart your career fresh out of university, but, let me tell you, you don’t need to do that RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Take a bloomin’ break.
The art world will be waiting for you, even if you take a month off and do everything besides thinking about art. It’s so important that you take time off when you graduate or else you will be prolonging an impending burn out. Whether you want to sleep for days on end and binge Netflix right after you graduate or focus on personal hobbies and be with your family, I practically encourage you to do what works for you and not what you feel is expected. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you need to be productive 24/7 to have earned your place within the arts, because it isn’t true. Your health and well-being matters more than your career and success comes in many forms, so listen to your body and take a break.
Social media isn’t real life. Separate from it
This is particularly important in relation to your productivity when you are within the arts as it can seem like everyone around you is constantly producing work – this is not the reality! You don’t see the moments when someone is sobbing into a painting, or the times when they have felt totally defeated. You never see the struggles, you only see what insight some posts reveal about their life, and it is usually curated in order to give off a certain image of themselves to the public. So, the next time you tear yourself down for not being as productive as you wished, remind yourself that social media isn’t the whole story of someone’s life.
I know it can be embarrassing to hype yourself but over this past year, I have learnt that by being bold and sending an email to someone I admire can lead to wonderful things. Though, disclaimer: don’t just shoot off a hundred cold messages and hope something will crop up because this doesn’t work. Rather, send a few meaningful emails with a bit about yourself and why you love the work by the individual, this can truly get you on the radar within the arts – believe me! Don’t expect miracles though and sometimes people don’t reply (for many reasons, such as being too busy), but if you don’t try, you don’t get, right?
If you need help hyping yourself up, I’d recommend looking up F*ck Being Humble.
Know your worth.
People in high up positions within the arts often try to undervalue the work of recent graduates, which can lead to really exploitative situations, which are completely not your fault by the way. This makes it SO important for you to know your value. Your creativity is inherently valuable, particularly as a recent graduate, so don’t let anyone discredit your work. I’d recommend getting yourself familiar with Artist Union pages as these are super useful for knowing rates of pay specifically for recent graduates and this can be used for pricing your work. I’d also recommend looking at resources on UnderPinned, Intern, and The Arena, as these are great platforms reminding me that I deserve better than to be messed around by institutional vampires.
Rejection is part of the process.
Yes, we all hate rejection. I still cry when I receive that dreaded “unfortunately you’ve not been successful this time…,” it never gets better sadly, but that’s OKAY. Believe me you’ll get sick of the cycle of writing applications then receiving a rejection, but this is so common, so please do not take it personally as, more often than not, it’s not personal. One day you’ll receive an email telling you that you’ve been successful and it’ll just feel SO good – so don’t ever let go of that hope. With completing so many applications, you’ll get way better at writing applications so think of it as practice makes perfect, eh?
In the meantime, could you do some freelance work whilst you’re job searching? Would signing up to Universal Credit help support you for the time-being? Whatever you do, please don’t give up. I don’t know anyone in the arts who hasn’t been faced with a heap of rejections; behind every success story and everyone you look up to, there is bound to be a history of rejections. Everyone starts somewhere.
There are people who care about you and want you to succeed.
The arts can seem individualistic, ruthless and like you are in constant competition with your peers. Degree shows do not help this mentality in the slightest as you feel as if you are competing with everyone for prizes, recognition and article features. If you don’t receive any of this it does not make you a failure and it certainly will not define your future, so rather than seeing yourself in an art school version of The Hunger Games, realise that the people around you will be your greatest asset upon graduating.
There are so many people out there that are rooting for you; these people can hold any relation to you – they could be a loved one, your university tutor or just some random person you met at an exhibition preview many moons ago. Just know there’s someone out there rooting for you, so you should be equally rooting for yourself too! Lean into the people around you and ask for support when you need a pick-me-up as being within the arts can be soul destroying at points; it’s important to remember people want you to succeed, just as much as you want to succeed.
I know things will probably feel dire when you graduate. No doubt it’ll not be the end to your time at university as you’d anticipated, so it’s okay if you feel like you still would like to be thrown to the sharks instead of being a recent graduate in the midst of a global pandemic. Just know that in amongst these times you wish the world would swallow you up, there will be moments when you feel just sheer joy being within the creative industry and in your heart of hearts, you will just know you are on the right path. Don’t ever give up. Those moments of joy are coming soon.
Jody Mulvey (she/her) is an artist and facilitator based in Scotland, whose work revolves around the notion that art can ultimately be a playful enquiry that oozes joy. She is also the founder of the fantastic @sadgrads2020, a community platform for UK art school graduates who had their degree shows cancelled due to COVID-19.